Why the 'pool party' arrest hysteria is (again) dead wrong

Critics of the McKinney cop who say he never should have used force against that bikini-clad teen should be reminded that she could have avoided any force had she simply complied with lawful commands

Since the video of a police action in McKinney (Texas) went viral, police critics have been calling for the officer involved in the confrontation to be fired — seeing the writing on the wall, Corporal Eric Casebolt beat everybody to the punch and resigned. 

Critics claim that he should not have drawn his gun when two youths aggressively approached him while he was on a knee, trying to put a young woman into custody. They say also that he should not have used force to put the teen girl on the ground. 

Had the teen girl complied with lawful commands, no force would have been necessary, and none would likely have been used. Regarding the two youths, the officer was outnumbered and surrounded by a hostile and potentially violent crowd. While I don’t condone his coarse language, Corporal Casebolt was justified in drawing his weapon when those two men presented themselves in a threatening manner. That action would pass any “reasonableness test” in any reasonable court in America.

Demonstrators gather during a protest in response to an incident at the pool involving McKinney police officers in McKinney, Texas.
Demonstrators gather during a protest in response to an incident at the pool involving McKinney police officers in McKinney, Texas. (AP Photo)

Assessing the Situation
Let’s reset the scene. Multiple calls come in, each indicating a disturbance. Citizens complain of fighting, trespassing, and other infractions, and report that there are multiple individuals involved. This is not a “take a report” radio call — we’re talking crime in-progress. 

The first cop arrives, and it’s a soup sandwich from the get-go. He struggles mightily, but begins getting the primary offenders in order, despite operating alone within an increasingly threatening crowd of onlookers. Would a tactical retreat have been a good idea early on? Someone not present and assessing the situation days later might say “yes,” but Corporal Casebolt didn’t have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight — he pressed on. 

Backup officers arrived, and while Corporal Casebolt was subduing a resistant subject — amid the crowd’s taunting and shouting — two young men rapidly and aggressively loomed into his near right flank. He responded by getting up, unholstering, pointing the gun in a safe direction (at the ground by his side), and issuing verbal commands.

He should be commended for quickly settling that issue, and then re-holstering and getting back to the business at hand when they scurried off. The fact that he resigned is a sad statement about the officer’s level of confidence that the agency would “have his back” in the aftermath. 

Police leaders should take opportunities like these to talk about the link between use of force and compliance, but too often they forfeit the initiative. It would appear that this has happened again. In fact, it looks a little like McKinney PD hung Corporal Casebolt out to dry.

Disparity of Force
Police leaders must take every available opportunity to explain that one of the human factors involved in making decisions in the tactical space is the perception of threat presented by disparity in size or in numbers of potential adversaries. In the incident in McKinney, the officer faced both.

When the officer arrived on scene, it was one against many. Even when backup arrived, the angry crowd outnumbered the responders trying to restore order to the suburban scene. What’s more important — and what has been ignored wholesale in the mainstream coverage of this incident — are the actions of those two young men in the video, and how those actions can be perceived by the officer on the street. 

An officer (or a number of them) engaged with a subject on the ground is highly vulnerable to an unprovoked attack by a third party. In that position, the officer occupies a position of disadvantage in comparison to an oncoming ambush attacker (or, in this case, a number of them).

Look no further than the incident in Maryland in 2012 in which two Baltimore (Md.) police officers in the process of taking a suspect into custody were surrounded by angry onlookers when an assailant suddenly tackled one of the cops. Such a situation can go sideways quickly, and can have deadly consequences for the cop. 

Randy Sutton — a 33-year police veteran and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety, told Police1, “Being outnumbered in a mob of people — regardless of whether they are teenagers or adults — is incredibly risky. Two young men were coming up on his gun side and any cop with any experience on the street knows how vulnerable he is to attack and that the removal of his weapon could lead to his death.”

In the book Left of Bang, Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley explain the concepts of combat profiling, universal behaviors and clusters, kinesics, and proxemics — and how all of those things can imply imminent threat. The two male subjects in McKinney exhibited several of the abovementioned elements which indicated a threat to that officer. 

Van Horne and Riley explain, “A negative atmosphere will be characterized by negative body language — arms crossed, aggressive stances, clenched fists, facial expressions of anger or contempt…” and that “aggressive movements toward something or quick movements away from something may also indicate danger or a potential threat.”

As those two individuals quickly closed in on the officer, they made themselves appear bigger by taking up more space in the officer’s field of view. They did this by both closing distance as well as spreading their arms and legs apart — classic indicators of threatening intent. 

In Force Science, this is known as looming — the perception of size, distance, and rate of closure of a threat. An average person’s field of view is about 180 degrees, and how fast a perceived threat takes up a large proportion of that space has a significant psychological and physiological effect on the person.

If all that wasn’t enough, one of the young men appeared to be reaching into his waistband with his left hand. The split-second decision the officer made may have been out of policy by the judgement of the administration, but it was understandable to anyone who has studied human factors in rapidly unfolding, high-stress encounters.

Unintended Consequences
Can this incident lead to an increasing tendency among officers to hesitate — to not act — because they don’t want to get tossed under the bus afterward? Will they fret that the public and the press will place undue pressure on the politicians, who will then pass the buck and transfer that burden to police leaders? 

I hope not, but we may be inevitably going there. Gravity works — stuff goes downhill — so we may end up getting police officers who don’t do proactive police work. What happens after that is not a pleasant thought.

If people continue to pounce on and persecute cops for doing their jobs, we may end up with cops who simply stop doing their jobs. Not wanting leave the career they love, they’ll just do the minimum. 

According to reports, there were multiple people in McKinney who called the police to stop the unrest in their suburban subdivision. Dispatch can’t say to those citizens, “We’re sorry to hear that some uninvited guests are wrecking your kid’s party, but none of our officers will attempt to intervene because they figure it’s going to look bad on video.”

The McKinney video looked bad. All force looks bad. Force is ugly. Force hurts.

Corporal Casebolt — through his attorney, and probably at his attorney’s advice — issued an apology for his conduct during that event, explaining that his nerves were frayed after responding to two suicide calls prior to the incident. While that may explain his coarse language, he shouldn't have to make an excuse for what he did. His actions during the incident were validated regardless of his prior calls.

The problem is, there are times that cops simply can’t sweet-talk subjects into handcuffs. Citizens would be surprised at just how many times that tactic works, but some guys and gals just won’t go without a fight.

I hope that police leaders will take this opportunity to engage citizens in frank conversations about compliance with verbal commands being the best means to prevent a use-of-force incident, and about the dangers of making aggressive movements toward an officer attempting to subdue a resisting subject. Because we can’t let the inmates run the asylum. 

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